I am Victoria Hoffman and currently I’m studying for an MRes in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. I started blogging as an undergraduate on Helen Rogers’ Level 6 module, ‘Writing Lives: A Collaborative Research Project on Working-Class Autobiography’. I saw ‘Writing Lives’ as a good introduction to conducting an independent research project. The combination of writing a series of themed blog posts, and the freedom of being allowed to choose any author to write about from the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, provided me with the opportunity to fully immerse myself in my chosen topic, whilst still having the clearly defined structure of set themes to help guide and define my writing.
I chose to write about Jack Goring (1861-1942). Jack’s life neatly straddles the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Jack’s autobiography (all 27,000 words of it!) paints not just a vivid picture of Victorian life (Jack remembered his mother, Rebecca putting on her crinoline), but also of how the Victorian era gave way to modernity. Through Jack’s personal depictions, we catch a glimpse of how ordinary life changed rapidly; new technologies and innovations altered everyday life, from transport – Jack remembered seeing new stations being built for the London Underground – to the truly terrifying experience of a modern world war. As you can imagine, Jack led a really interesting life with lots to write about – perfect for expanding into an MRes dissertation.
As anyone who has undertaken a research project is aware, you are generally restricted to using published sources of information, be it in a book, journal, or newspaper etc.; this is where blogging and social media comes into its own as an additional tool for research. Publishing our work on the ‘Writing Lives’ website not only makes our work available for a wide readership, but also invites comments, feedback and an opportunity to contact us directly. Facebook and Twitter also provide useful contact points for anyone whose interest has been piqued by reading our blog posts, and so I was absolutely delighted to be contacted by a member of Jack’s family, Simon Fielding.
Simon contacted ‘Writing Lives’ via our Facebook page, for which I have to thank another member of the Writing Lives team, Tawny Whitfield, for her vigilance and for forwarding Simon’s email address (this also highlights how members collaborate to keep each other informed). This is his message:
Dear Helen and Victoria,
I was delighted to read your excellent website – especially as my wife Rachel has a strong family connection to Jack: his daughter Elsa was Rachel’s paternal grandmother; Elsa married Stanley Adams Houghton in 1922, and lived in Slindon, Sussex later in life. My father in law is Paul Goring Houghton who knows much of his grandfather’s verse by heart! We have a copy of ‘Nip and Flip’ and many other family photos, but I don’t think anyone knew Jack wrote an autobiography, so we would be fascinated to read it.
Do please get in touch if you think we could help with your research.
WOW! As you can imagine I was rather excited when I read this email! It may only be a paragraph long, but it contains a lot of information. Firstly, it explained the relationship between Jack and Mrs S. Houghton of Elm Cottage, Slindon, as being the person who the original copy of Jack’s autobiographical notes is referenced to – Mrs Houghton is Elsa, Jack’s third eldest daughter. Secondly, I had been searching everywhere for evidence of ‘Nip and Flip’ a book of children’s verse written by Jack, but couldn’t find anything anywhere. Thanks to Simon I now have a photo of the cover, plus he has since offered to scan the entire book for me to read. Thirdly, (and I find this really amazing), the family had no idea that Jack had written an autobiography, meaning (and this makes me feel slightly strange) that I probably know more about Jack than they do…to a point.
I remember writing my final blog post for ‘Writing Lives’ about my experience of researching Jack’s life and how enjoyable and rewarding it had been. I also commented on how I felt sorry that despite knowing so much about his life, I didn’t know what he looked like, yet! But now, thanks to Simon and his wonderful feedback, I can not only put a face to Jack, but also his wife and children…
If you are curious for more information, check out the fabulous Prezi in Kim Edwards Keates’ blogpost ‘History and Social Media: Blogging Beyond the Classroom’ which accompanies a paper that was jointly delivered by Kim and student presenters, Elliot McGaffney, Jade Barber (and me!) at the University of Glasgow’s workshop on Blogging for Historians on 26 September 2014.
My experience of being involved with ‘Writing Lives’ has provided a valuable lesson in how to produce a well-researched series of blogposts that people find interesting and enjoyable to read; ‘Writing Lives’ has also provided me with the tools and scope to take my research further as part of my MRes dissertation. The main question to ask yourself when deciding on a topic for research is ‘so what?’ What is it about my chosen subject that will inform and engage with current academic conversations? I am lucky in this respect – I know that through my previous work about Jack Goring I have generated some interest already – which has given me the confidence and inspiration to continue my studies to MRes and (possibly) beyond!